Book review: Conceptualizing an Emancipatory Alternative: Peter Hudis reviews István Mészáros’s ‘Beyond Capital’

First posted June 29, 2016

It is no exaggeration to say that with 1989 a long historical phase – the one initiated by the October Revolution of 1917 – came to its end. From now on, whatever might be the future of socialism, it will have to be established on radically new foundations, beyond the tragedies and failures of Soviet type development which became blocked very soon after the conquest of power in Russia by Lenin and his followers –  István Mészáros in Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition; 1995; p. 284. Explore the Mészáros archive

He painstakingly shows through this 1,000-page study that present-day capitalism is submerged in a “depressed continuum” characterized by “an endemic, permanent, structural crisis” (Mészâros 1995: 597). Yet he no less painstakingly shows that the failure of all efforts at socialist revolution to move from the mere elimination of capitalists to the abolition of capital itself has placed the very idea of socialism in profound crisis

It is a rare occasion to encounter a work which so directly confronts the central problem of our time. The globalization of capital and commodification of every conceivable area of everyday life, along with the worldwide collapse of an array of revolutionary movements, have provided a near-unshakable foundation for the claim that one or another form of capitalism defines our future. 

Whether expressed as the “end of history,” the “death of the subject,” or the “permanence of alienation,” the present historic moment is defined by a profound crisis in the ability to envision the transcendence of capitalist social relations. The unsettling character of this reality has spurred a number of recent efforts to reexamine the contemporary importance of Marx’s work. In light of the all-pervasiveness and power of the claim that we have no choice but to accept the limits of the given, it has become increasingly evident that the projection of an emancipatory alternative to “actually existing capitalism” is the most important task facing radical theory today.

 And yet while there is growing awareness of the need to project anew a comprehensive liberatory alternative, few seem willing to plunge into the actual endeavor. It is one thing to single out some specific aspects of Marx’s thought which speak to today (as Derrida does in Specters of Marx), and quite another to rethink his oeuvre as a whole in light of our present predicament. It is one thing to engage in various critiques of existing institutions and thinkers (important as that may be), and quite another to reconceptualize the very meaning of a socialist perspective.

Few others have as directly and honestly confronted the crisis in envisioning an alternative to existing society. He painstakingly shows through this 1,000-page study that present-day capitalism is submerged in a “depressed continuum” characterized by “an endemic, permanent, structural crisis” (Mészâros 1995: 597). Yet he no less painstakingly shows that the failure of all efforts at socialist revolution to move from the mere elimination of capitalists to the abolition of capital itself has placed the very idea of socialism in profound crisis. The abolition of the personifications of capital, Mészâros again and again insists, does not necessarily lead to the abolition of capital as a universalizing social form of metabolic control. The persistence of the capital-form as the defining medium of social interaction in Soviet-type societies is proof, he argues, of the insufficiency of focusing on the elimination of the agents of capital as the ne plus ultra of socialist theory and practice. 

Moreover, the failure of such societies to avoid the defects characteristic of “classic” capitalism has turned masses of working people away from the very idea of socialism itself. Mészâros insists that unless we work out what he calls a “theory of transition” that pinpoints the forms by which the revolutionary seizure of power can lead to the abolition of capital, we will be unable to extricate ourselves from the profound impasse which has been reached in the socialist movement.

He writes, “creating the necessary mediations towards [the abolition of capital] cannot be left to some far-away future…for if the mediatory steps are not pursued right from the outset, as an organic part of the transformatory strategy, they will never be taken” (1995: 729). He moreover argues,

It is not too difficult to point to crisis symptoms that foreshadow the breakdown of the established socioeconomic and political order. However, in and of itself the profound structural crisis of the capital system is very far from being enough to inspire confidence in a successful outcome. The pieces must be picked up and put together in due course in a positive way. And not even the gravest crisis or the most severe breakdowns are of much help by themselves in that respect. It is always incomparably easier to say ‘no’ than to draw even the bare outlines of a positive alternative to the negated object. Only on the basis of a coherent strategic view of the overall social complex can even a partial negation of the existent be considered plausible or legitimate (xvii-xviii).

Mészâros is under no illusions about the difficulty of outlining such a “theory of transition.” It entails not only going against the grain of established thought, but also challenging the logic of capital itself, since the very nature of capital as a universalizing social form is to convey the impression that the transitory, historic stage of capitalism is natural and immutable. At the same time, Mészâros is fully conscious of the pitfall of falling into utopianism by outlining blueprints of a future society. Though hatching Utopian schemes may seem immediately satisfying, they generally fail to lift thought beyond the very contours of the social form they seek to critique. The task of confronting the question of “what happens after the revolution” involves a far more laborious and formidable task, one centered on explicating the social formations and tendencies inherent in modern society which can point us beyond the contours of the present capital-system.

Mészâros’s book consists not of a delineation of the specific content of such a “theory of transition” as much as a critique of the conceptual barriers standing in the way of its development. The bulk of it consists of a series of extended critiques of those who either pose the capital-form as an immutable law of human history or fail to conceptualize a pathway to its transcendence. Of the former, Mészâros develops a devastating critique of figures such as von Hayek and Weber, while of the latter he sharply attacks the limitations of Social Democracy and Stalinism. He takes special aim at the tendency of Marxists, going as far back as the Second International, to assume that the material conditions of capitalism can be directly utilized to bring forth a non-capital-producing society.

Marx of course said many times that capitalism engenders the material conditions for its dissolution. The Marxists of the Second International took this to mean, however, that the centralization of capital and socialization of labor under capitalism would bring forth socialism in quasi-automatic fashion. All mat was required was a Party large and strong enough to pick up the pieces once capitalism collapsed. They therefore felt no responsibility to articulate a vision of a socialist future, using Marx’s strictures against utopianism as a “pillow for intellectual sloth.”

Mészâros stresses that most Marxists failed to see that capitalism’s material conditions cannot be directly utilized to create a new society, since they are afflicted with hierarchies of class, gender, and race. Though the material conditions engender the forms necessary for a reconstruction of society, the actual creation of these forms hinges, not on historical necessity, but on the conscious articulation and implementation of human relations which dispense with the capitalist law of value. Though evolutionist confidence in the direct applicability of capitalism’s material conditions for building socialism seemed to suffer a setback with the collapse of the Second International in 1914, it obtained a new lease on life with the transformation of the Russian Revolution into a totalitarian society in the Stalin period. 

The emergence of statified property as a veritable fetish in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China convinced even those opposed to Stalinism (such as the Trotskyists) that the abolition of the market and private property represented an advance upon private capitalism. Marxists dung to the assumption mat the centralization of capital and socialization of labor, even under a totalitarian regime, proved that history was moving inexorably in the direction of socialism. Burdened by this assumption, they felt little need to address the question, “what happens after the revolution?”

The world which underlay these assumptions came crashing down by 1989. The 1980s proved without a shadow of a doubt that the centralization of capital and socialization of labor when held within the integument of the capital-form did not bring humanity closer to a socialist future, but instead dovetailed with the prerequisites of high-tech “free market” capitalism. Mészâros shows that the nature of contemporary capitalism makes it more problematic than ever to presume that the existing material conditions can be directly appropriated for building a non-capital-producing society. For the  reproduction of capital today requires a level of destructiveness of environmental resources and human creativity unprecedented in human history. Given its inherent social and natural destructiveness, it would be the height of foolishness to presume that a post-revolutionary society can base itself on the social productivity of capital. 

Utilizing the existing material conditions through a mere change of property forms, redistribution of income, or elimination of the personifications of capital can in no way lead to improved conditions of life. The very internal dynamic and social hierarchies which constitute the domination of labor by capital must begin to be broken down in the immediate aftermath of a revolutionary seizure of power; otherwise, not even the most minimal progress can be recorded…

Journal of the International Marxist Humanists

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Also see:

A historical view of economic categories

Why Socialism? Albert Einstein

Can capitalism and democracy co exist? interview with Sheldon Wolin

Why Marx was right – Terry Eagleton

Is there any such thing as ethical capitalism?

Athens 1944- Britain’s dirty secret